NJ Legislature Unanimously Approves Tougher Sexual Harassment Policy

Carly Sitrin | September 28, 2018 | Politics
New policy specifies mandatory anti-harassment training for lawmakers, applies to staff, lobbyists, journalists — virtually all those doing business in State House

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg addresses yesterday's press conference.
On a day that much of the nation spent time listening to U.S. Senate testimony from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, New Jersey lawmakers introduced a stricter anti-harassment policy of their own. Ford testified before the Judiciary committee about her recollection of a sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when they were teenagers.

“I was listening to that testimony today,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “I listened right up to the minute I came into this hallway, and to hear that brilliant, honest woman stand up and speak out and then, five minutes later, calling on us to do this, I couldn’t find a more appropriate moment for us to be here,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg joined colleagues from both sides of the aisle in the Assembly and Senate to speak ahead of a vote on a stricter, anti-harassment policy for the legislative branch. Lawmakers, staff, and anyone who does business with the Legislature, including lobbyists and the media, must abide by the policy.

The new guidelines detail what categories — identifiers like race, gender, creed, nationality, religion, and others — are protected and what acts are considered harassment or discrimination. Harassment or discrimination based on the protected categories are prohibited. The guidelines outline the path someone can take to report a complaint, making it easier than it has been, and detailing a subsequent investigatory process. They also specify mandatory anti-harassment training for legislators at least once every two years.

Approved by both houses

Shortly after the conference, the joint resolution adopting the policy passed both houses with no opposition.

“I firmly believe that the policy that we will adopt today sends a clear message without equivocation that there will be zero tolerance for any acts of discrimination, harassment, by members of the Legislature or their staff,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said.

At the end of the press conference, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) stepped up to discuss the importance of privacy in these investigations, sharing his story as a “victim of a false claim” that occurred in 2008, when he was Gloucester County freeholder. Sweeney was later cleared of the charge.

“You can ruin a person’s career with a false allegation,” Sweeney said.

The new policy was drafted in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp era, when states are taking a hard look at their guidelines regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. Before today, New Jersey had been operating on a much-shorter, nine-year-old policy that was considered among the weakest in the nation.

“We have finally as a society caught up with the notion that we ought to be paying attention and stopping harassment whenever and however we can … It was just something that we needed to do. The policy was old and outdated and the times have fortunately changed,” Coughlin said.

Prohibited behavior

The updated policy gives several detailed and wide-reaching examples of prohibited conduct, including sexual harassment and discrimination. Its nine-page text contains a blueprint for how complaints should be handled in the Legislature and when outside counsel should be involved. It also lays out an appeals process and consequences of false accusations.

The guidelines apply to all members and employees of the Legislature, as well as third-party staff, district office staff, and the staff of the Assembly and Senate office of the clerk. Lobbyists, journalists, and members of the public who conduct business at the State House are also included.

According to the new code, any findings of misconduct during an investigation could be made public under the state’s Open Public Records Act, but only with the consent of the complainant.

NJ Spotlight previously requested similar documents under the old policy using the state’s OPRA law, but was informed that the Office of Legislative Services had no relevant documents.

The new guidelines, however, do not appear to apply retroactively to any complaints made before its adoption.

Earlier accusations

When asked if she knew of any previous accusations against policymakers, Weinberg pointed to past complaints against former Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian, Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris), and one against an unnamed employee in the Office of Legislative Services.

“I am aware of those that I just referred to … in the past. Not anything contemporary,” Weinberg said.

And on the Assembly floor, before casting her vote approving the new policy, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) shared her #MeToo story.

“It does happen. It will happen. It will happen today, unfortunately,” Lampitt said. “I stand here today in front of everybody, very conflicted about what I’m going to say next, but I’m going to say, ‘me too.’ So for anybody else that might have had a ‘me too’ moment in their life, I hope you stand with me. Because I need somebody beside me at this challenging time, at this vulnerable time …I stand here for my daughter … for everybody’s daughters here in this room. We want to empower them differently than we felt when we were younger.”